The Best of the Next Stage Theatre Festival
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The Best of the Next Stage Theatre Festival

There's nearly a week left in the Next Stage Theatre Festival, and 10 shows chosen to represent the best in Canadian indie theatre. Here are the standouts.

An innocent kiss at a party leads to imprisonment in Loving the Stranger or How to Recognize an Invert. Detail of a photo by Alistair Newton.

If you haven’t rung in the new year with a show at the Next Stage Theatre Festival yet, well, you could very well be alone.

Celebrating its fifth anniversary, the festival is having a smashing year: ticket sales are breaking records and the quality of the shows is consistently solid. Running until Sunday, January 15, there are still plenty of opportunities to catch nine of the 10 shows (the entire run of Morro and Jasp is sold out)—but here are the ones we think are the hottest in this most unseasonably warm of seasons.

Tomasso’s Party

Simon Bracken and Leah Doz in Tomasso's Party, the first play from author Jules Lewis.

Wide-awake in the early hours of the morning, unable to calm a relentless and deep-rooted anxiety, layering analysis upon analysis of the smallest of details—it’s a situation that is never happy, never pleasant, and not really something that sounds enjoyable to experience on a stage for an hour. Fortunately, Tomasso’s Party is a neurotic trip we’re happy to take.

Hugo (Simon Bracken) paces back and forth in the bedroom he shares with Madeleine (Leah Doz), who is sleeping (or attempting to) on their bed with her back forever facing the audience, on a mission to get her to confirm his suspicions—that she is having an affair with her boss, the charming Tomasso. Jules Lewis’s script playfully keeps this question unanswered as the two dive deeper into their respective insecurities. Lewis’s script is thick with repetition and subtext, but both Bracken and Doz uphold it excellently. Bracken in particular does the heaving lifting, not only in his pointed and intense delivery of lengthy monologues but in his commanding physicality, facial expressions, and control over his rather lanky limbs. Doz is a worthy partner, saying more with a pointed finger than she needs to with the rest of her body.

With a male writer, a male director (Nigel Shawn Williams), and a male doing most of the talking, it can’t help but feel like a one-sided argument. But lucky for the audience, these are some neuroses we don’t have to take to bed with us. (Carly Maga)

Modern Love

Jessica Moss finds love in a faceless place. Photo by Kyle Purcell.

Marking a common theme in this year’s Next Stage Festival of love in the digital age, or lack thereof, is Jessica Moss’s one-hander Modern Love. Written and performed by Moss, it tells the story of Trish, a girl who finds that having hundreds of friends on Facebook doesn’t mean she has any real ones IRL, which leads to her pursuit of a connection that isn’t mediated by wifi and screens. It’s not a hugely novel concept, but Moss is charming and loveable as her stage alter-ego, and is probably one of the few people able to capture the essence of a Twitter conversation in live action.

Moss is making quite a name for herself as an actor in Toronto’s theatre scene, which will only be bolstered by her performance in Modern Love: she moves from lovesick Trish, to Tweet-fiend friend, to chat room troll, to an overly skeptical mother. But she also shows her writing chops with a clever script, including quirky online romantic interest Charlie Brown that had audience members audibly sighing in adoration.

Moss’s writing and performance, Eric Double’s direction, and Kyle Purcell’s multimedia projections take the audience through the jungle of online social networking—Facebook, Twitter, Skype, online dating sites, chat rooms, and the Internet help call centre—and get us out alive, even with a little hope. (Carly Maga)

Uncalled For Presents Hypnogogic Logic

The fellas of Uncalled For. Photo by Jeremy Bobrow.

Not to sound like a broken record, but we really, really like the guys of Uncalled For and their show Hypnogogic Logic. A “best of” choice at the 2011 Fringe, the show still takes audience members through a series of scenes as outlandish and incongruous as a person’s subconscious as they fall asleep, including a few signature scenes like an episode of post-apocalyptic MasterChef, a pair of sleepless sheep, and a Freddie Mercury musical number—scenes which, if you missed last summer, would be foolish to sleep through again.

But this show isn’t simply Fringe 2.0. Fifteen minutes of new material, updated jokes, and a few crack-ups on stage are evidence that these guys are keeping each other precariously balanced on their toes. And as random as their sketches seem to be, there is a calculated design to the show that brings everything together in a satisfying, yet similarly zany, ending. What results is a 75-minute-long smorgasbord of sketches that we’re relieved, and saddened, to wake up from. (Carly Maga)

Loving the Stranger Or How to Recognize an Invert

If there was a “most improved” award at Next Stage this year, we’d be giving it to Ecce Homo for this remount. We liked the 2010 SummerWorks production well enough, but in comparison to their previous shows, that version of Loving the Stranger was lacking in focus and cohesion, and wasn’t firing on all cylinders. This might have been because playwright/director Alistair Newton was incorporating changes into the show, based on developments as they were unfolding in California. (The play draws parallels between Nazi laws on homosexuality and the fight for same sex rights via the Proposition 8 legislation in California.) The current version is still plenty topical, with references to developments from the past six months, but Newton and his cast and creative team have had the time to refine the content and the effectiveness of its delivery in Ecce Homo’s signature cabaret and found text style.

Gay artist Peter Flinsch (Hume Baugh), who left Germany post-Second World War after a period of imprisonment and made Canada his home, remains the most revered real life figure Ecce Homo has featured in their shows; his insights into the Nazi rise to power, and the development of gay culture in the post-war years (up until last year, when Flinsch passed away), now seem to be more evenly spaced and solidly anchored in the show. An important secondary character, sexuality doctor Magnus Hirschfeld, provides a rational period counterpoint to excerpts from National Socialist propaganda speeches and statements—and uneasily similar sentiments from Prop 8 opponents. The singing, dancing, and stripping performed by Ecce Homo’s ensemble remains strong, and Newton’s subtle refinements underscore the need to continue to fight for equality and civil rights. “Because things can change,” the show points out, “we must do as much as we can.” (Steve Fisher)

Morro and Jasp: Go Bake Yourself
Morro and Jasp

Morro (Heather Marie Annis, at right) and Jasp (Amy Lee, at left) serve up comedy in Go Cook Yourself. Photo by Alex Nirta.

It seems almost unfair for us to recommend Morro and Jasp‘s cooking show playlet, given that tickets are sold out for their entire Next Stage run. But we are obliged to tell those lucky folks who already have tickets that they’ve picked a great one, as the clown sister act (and director/dramaturg Byron Laviolette) has whipped up yet another gleefully funny and participatory experience.

We also have a few tips for attendees. Do be careful with any implements you may be handed, as one overzealous volunteer vegetable peeler has already drawn blood. Don’t lean too far forward to get a look at what’s going in the bowl if you’re in the front row, as the exuberant Morro (Heather Marie Annis) has already cayenne-peppered herself in the face while mixing maniacally. Do follow the directions of the polite but manipulative Jasp (Amy Lee), who may turn her coquettish charms on men in the audience.

Above all, know that the whip-smart ladies behind the slightly manic clown personalities can and will capitalize on any chance opportunities that present themselves in the moment, whether they be a song coming from outside the performance space, or a temporary power outage leading to a haywire blender. (Steve Fisher)